"Nancy Pelosi dancing in the streets of Chinatown in San Francisco"
It's a surreal image and yet, one that perfectly fits the theme of the campaign trail that leads to 3 November's US presidential election. The claim was first made by President Donald Trump back in April when he was trying, for neither the first nor last time, to deflect criticism of his administration's handling of the COVID-19 crisis. And he revived it during a section of Thursday night's final presidential debate that pertained to the coronavirus response.
The facts are what they are, but and as Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden suggested during the debate, Trump isn't one to let context get in the way of a good story.
After the cancellation of the second debate " or rather, after it transformed into a set of duelling townhalls, this would be the last time American voters would get to see their two presidential candidates go head-to-head before Election Day. In conventional election years, the third debate would be a critical event that would see both participants doing their utmost to first, strengthen their existing support bases; second, chisel away at their opponent's support base and third, convert as many undecided voters as possible.
But in pandemic-ravaged 2020 where divisions among people appear far deeper than in recent times, support bases are more deeply entrenched and the pool of undecided voters has already shrunken. According to estimates, over 47 million or around a fifth of voting-age Americans have already cast their votes. As a result, it can be argued that unless we're looking at a dead heat, trends so far are likely to be significant enough to carry into 3 November, and barring any major faux pas or revelation, are likely to translate into the final result.
At last count, Trump trailed Biden 43 percent to 51 percent in national polls and was behind in every single battleground state apart from Ohio and Texas. And so, if anyone needed the third debate to go overwhelmingly in his favour, it was the incumbent. As it turned out however, it didn't. Not by a long shot.
The opening exchanges were civil enough with both participants maintaining a calm demeanour and refraining from interrupting each other. As the debate began to unfold, the new rules of engagement " including the muting of microphones during the opening remarks in each section " appeared to suit Biden more than Trump, who to his credit, kept his cool. For a while.
14 minutes in. Trump is rattled and starting to fall apart. Adhominem attacks. Speech pace quickening. Face redenning. Biden is killing him.
" Steve Schmidt (@SteveSchmidtSES) October 23, 2020
You might remember Steve Schmidt from his time running the day-to-day operations of the John McCain-Sarah Palin campaign back in 2008. It's safe to say the man knows a thing or two about poorly-run campaigns. Without getting into the running of Trump's campaign, his bid to come out on top in Thursday's event came unstuck a bit before Schmidt's observation: At the 10-minute mark, when he was on the run after a question about an eagerly-awaited COVID-19 vaccine.
"It's ready... [It'll be ready] in a few weeks... [It'll be ready] by the end of the year... It's not a guarantee," said the president within the span of a couple of minutes. When pressed about which companies were making progress with the vaccine, he glibly named Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson. These are the same names he uttered on Fox News just over a month ago, but he seemed to have failed to take into account Johnson and Johnson putting a halt on all testing for the time being. And the whole matter now appears to be shrouded in secrecy.
From there and apart from landing a couple of blows " like when he questioned Biden on his achievements during his 47 years of service and momentarily got under the former vice-president's skin about payments purportedly received from Moscow and China " there was very little for Trump to celebrate on the night. Whether it was his usual self-aggrandisement (ranging from "I know more about wind than you do" to proclaiming at a debate moderated by an African-American that "I am the least racist person in this room"), his new trick of mimicking (admittedly, very poorly) Biden, his deep-seated resentment for his predecessor Barack Obama or his efforts to turn the Hunter Biden laptop matter into this year's equivalent of Hillary Clinton's private email server, it all seemed to fall flat.
Even the accusations of corruption against Biden, his son, his brothers and so on " that seem to have the conservative sections of the media in the US and abroad frothing at the mouth " appeared to elicit a relatively mellow refutation from former vice-president.
By all accounts, this was a far cry from the ill-mannered food-fight witnessed at the very end of last month. But the deck, it appeared, was stacked against Trump from the time the Commission on Presidential Debates got the Democrat and Republican camps to sign off on the new rules that featured muted microphones. An inability to interrupt his opponent coupled with an early unwillingness (likely due to the Trump strategists' decision to have the president seem presidential and measured after the fiasco that was the first debate) to do so appeared to hobble the incumbent.
His petulant schoolboy-like grimacing and remonstrations may not have been recorded by the muted microphone, but were certainly captured by the television cameras and were in stark contrast to Biden's body language as he cheerfully laughed off Trump's barbs. Gone was the crude "Will you just shut up, man?" and in its place were the relaxed and composed shakes of the head and little laughs.
Free of interruptions and heckling, Biden, for his part, painted a completely different picture to the man we saw in the first debate. Clarity, concision, celerity and coherence seemed to be the four Cs that formed Biden's guiding principle on the night. He rarely fumbled or looked frazzled, clearly articulated his plans and arguments, largely stuck to brief responses and demonstrated the ability to swiftly and coherently move from one topic to another so as to minimise the chances of being cornered by Trump. And aside from referring to the Proud Boys as "Poor Boys" in the segment on 'Race in America', Biden was able to avoid any major gaffes " which, essentially, was all he had to do.
A Trump muzzled by the new rules and his own new strategy was no match for his opponent, and by the time he threw off the muzzle around two-thirds of the way through the debate and began interrupting his opponent and cracking wise like three weeks ago, it was already too late. Just as in the Democratic primaries, Biden took his time but had finally come into his own in the final debate. Further, he had fine-tuned his strategy of speaking directly to the American voter and took a handful of opportunities to speak directly to the American family at home. "It's not about [Trump's] family, it's not about my family; it's about your family," asserted the former vice-president at one point. This particular instance went some way in demonstrating the lessons the challenger, a career politician, had learned from the first time he squared off against Trump and managed to slickly disrupt and deflect the president's corruption allegations aimed at Biden's family.
Meanwhile, although both participants were largely civil towards each other, credit must go to moderator Kristen Welker (NBC News' White House correspondent) for ensuring the sanctity of the debate and preventing matters from ever spiralling out of control. Although she maintained a firm grip on proceedings, Welker never imposed herself on the event and risked overshadowing the participants.
Context has never mattered to Trump, at least for the duration of his political career anyway. It did not matter to him in 2016 that he was going up against a vastly more experienced candidate. It did not matter to him that his inauguration ceremony was poorly attended. It did not matter to him that he was often sending out contradictory signals. And it still doesn't matter to him that he's made the line between US allies and adversaries as fuzzy as it's ever been.
A lot of Trump's success has been built on the audacity of disregarding the status quo and recontextualising facts, events and quotes in a manner that he sees fit. While this has certainly fuelled the fires of his detractors, it's also gone some way in earning him a cult of personality and a rabid fan base. In fact, a glance at his Twitter feed will show just how thoroughly he's gone about recontextualising his overall poor performance on Thursday night as a thumping victory. In reality, Trump came off as confused, deluded and in it for himself. This may have charmed voters back in 2016, but the chances of his toxic brand of lightning striking twice seem remote.
Debates rarely, if ever, influence elections, but if they did, Trump should begin packing his bags and prepare to demit office in January 2021.